As the Cowichan Valley continues to bake under a level 4 drought, some water users along the Koksilah River have been told to turn off the taps.
Water use on the Koksilah River is being curtailed after water flows hit critically low levels again last week, which is defined as less than 180 litres a second.
This flow level has been determined to threaten the survival of fish in the river and, in accordance with the province’s water sustainability act, the Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Katrine Conroy has issued an order to specific water users in the Koksilah watershed to curtail water use to maintain viable flows for fish.
The order, signed on Aug. 17, restricts all diversion and use of water for industrial purposes, and for the irrigation of forage crops, like hay and corn, until at least Sept. 30.
The watering of livestock or perennial and vegetable crops are not impacted by the order, nor are domestic water uses.
“This is a very sad reflection on the state of this watershed,” said Tom Rutherford, executive director of the Cowichan Watershed Board.
“It’s sad for fish, and everything that depends on them, and it’s very sad for local farmers who have really borne the brunt of water restrictions in recent years. These are my neighbours, and valued members of our community, and I want to thank them for their contributions, and acknowledge how difficult this is for many residents of the watershed.”
Climate change, the impacts of land use and increased water use have led to changes in the watershed, including low flows and flooding.
Summer flows in the Koksilah River have been exceptionally low in recent years at times when demand for water is the greatest.
This threatens the survival of coho and steelhead salmon and resident trout, as well as the whole aquatic ecosystem.
It also impacts local agricultural production, drinking water for some well users, recreation, and other businesses in the watershed.
In order to address this, Cowichan Tribes and the province have signed an Interim Letter of Agreement to work in equal partnership to explore the option of creating a water sustainability plan for the watershed.
“The CWB supports the work that Cowichan Tribes and the province are currently engaged in towards the creation of a water sustainability plan,” said Rutherford.
“That plan will explore land and water use options to provide for a more sustainable future for aquatic ecosystems and all of us who live in, and depend on, the Koksilah watershed. We need to keep working together to figure out a better path forward.”
In 2020, a group environmental farm plan was created on behalf of farmers located in the Koksilah watershed through a Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Fisheries funded program to assess and address agriculture’s role in the water sustainability of the Koksilah River.
As an interim measure to address water shortages last year, and again this summer, all major farm irrigators agreed to follow a low-flow irrigation schedule, coordinated with funding from the ministry.
The schedule reduces the group’s collective water use by about 50 per cent to protect fish survival.
This year, other water storage and sustainability measures are also being explored by local farms with support from Farmland Advantage, which is funded by the Healthy Watersheds Initiative.
Rutherford said many other efforts are also underway to understand and address the long-term water issues in the Koksilah watershed.
He said the CWB encourages all Koksilah watershed businesses and residents not legally impacted by the minster’s order to reduce their water use as much as possible during these critically dry weeks.